How to be a lady

Elyse is only four years old and she’s sitting in the Pfister lobby with her grandparents, ambulance Irene and Keith Wells, learning “how to be a lady.” (Some of us are 40 and may or may not be clear on the details of lady-dom, but that’s another blog entirely.)

The Wells are from Sydney, Australia, but are here for their annual visit to the Midwest to visit their Chicago-based son, recipe daughter-in-law and two granddaughters. They brought Elyse, their eldest granddaughter, to Milwaukee via train for a two-day get-away.

Although staying at a nearby hotel, they chose the Pfister as their locale for brunch and lady lessons.

So what does it mean to be a lady?

“It means no feet on chairs. Sitting nicely in chairs. Not talking loudly. Not running in the halls. And keeping our fingers clean,” says Irene.

(Phew! Maybe there’s hope for me yet. I seem to do most of these things on a regular basis.)

But despite the “rules” involved in acting like a lady, the rest of their visit to Brew City is spontaneous and free spirited. The trio have enjoyed their time, going on “discovery walks” where they explore Downtown at their leisure.

So far, they have discovered, aptly, the Discovery World Museum, as well at the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, a Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra concert and the lakefront’s War Memorial. Consequently, Elyse is referring to her sausages as “soldiers.”

She is also quite fond of the “angels” on the ceiling mural in the Pfister’s lobby.

The Wells are in the United States for a month. Their son and his family visit them every year for a month as well.

“We do OK. We get to see each other quite a bit considering the distance,” says Irene. “And there’s always Skype.”

Keith and Irene’s son came to the United States on business 10 years ago. He met the woman who would later become his wife at church. However, his first visit to the U.S. was at age 15 when Keith and Irene took him to see the Sears Tower in, coincidentally, Chicago.

“Little did we know 20 years later our son would return and get married,” says Keith, a now-retired engineer who traveled to Milwaukee in 1992 on business to study the control systems at Rockwell Automation.

Keith went on to ask me a bunch of questions I could not answer about the Rockwell Automation four-sided clock, called the Allen Bradley Clocktower as well as “The Polish Moon” to locals.

I told him even though I could see the clock from my front porch, I had to consult with Google to answer his inquiries. Keith, I hope you’re reading this.

His first question was whether or not the clock was still the largest in the world. I knew it was not, but could not remember the details and rediscovered it was the largest in the western hemisphere until Abraj Al Bait Towers was built a couple of years ago in Saudi Arabia.

He also asked me the dimensions of the clock tower, which I did not know, either. But, alas, Google later told me it’s 281 feet tall.

Keith didn’t seem too bothered by my lack of information. I offered to look it up on my phone immediately, but he chuckled and shook his head softly. Elyse climbed on his lap and rested her head on is chest. He took a sip of his orange juice.

“I’m living the easy life now,” he says.

A birthday celebration sparks good conversation with a banker

During my first month as the Pfister Narrator, I have already spent a lot of time hanging out at the Lobby Bar, Cafe and Blu, talking to guests and hearing what brought them to the hotel.

Recently, for the first time, I went to Mason Street Grill. It was my birthday and it seemed like a fun, celebratory place. Plus, a couple I interviewed for my second Pfister blog said it had the best happy hour in the city.

I do not take such words lightly. And so I went.

I ended up not taking advantage of the great happy hour deals which offer everything on the bar menu for $5, but sat in the restaurant side instead. You know, ‘cuz I was the birthday girl and all.

I’m not one to photograph my food for social media, but I was in cell phone shutterbug mode during my entire meal. The lobster and salmon were incredible and the barbecue shrimp appetizer – which was recommended to me by former Pfister narrator Jenna Kashou – looked like an art piece. The drizzle design reminded me of an intricate henna design an Indian bride might have adorned on her hands or feet the night before her wedding.

Somehow, after my meal, I found a small window between gluttony and food coma, and struck up a conversation with Mason Street regular and another happy hour enthusiast, Tracy Meeks.

Me: So what brings you here tonight?

Tracy: I’m here for happy hour. I love the food and the drinks here. And the music. I come once or twice a week.

Me: Do you work Downtown? (He’s wearing a very nice suit and tie.)

Tracy: I work at Seaway Bank.

Me: I know where that is. Next door to the Fondy Market, on Fond du Lac. So did you move here from Chicago two years ago when Seaway took over the space? (It was formerly Liberty Bank.)

Tracy: You know your history. Yes, I did move here two years ago from Chicago when the bank opened.

Me: How long have you been in banking?

Tracy: Since 1989.

Me: So why should someone consider banking at Seaway?

Tracy: It’s a small community bank. We’re friendly. We know our customers. And you will always get a person on the phone.

Me: So do you ever go to the Fondy Market?

Tracy: Every Saturday in the summertime.

Me: You a vegetable person?

Tracy: Yes. I love squash, cabbage.

Me: Do you like to cook?

Tracy: I do. I like to make lots of things. Especially crab cakes with asparagus and a glass of beer. Not wine. I’m a beer drinker. And I like Scotch.

Me: How was your transition, moving from Chicago to Milwaukee?

Tracy: It’s been good, Milwaukee’s nice. I call it a very northern suburb of Chicago. I love my lake view here in Milwaukee. I love the people of Milwaukee. It’s a northern city with southern hospitality. It’s a diamond in the rough. A lot of people who live in Milwaukee don’t know what Milwaukee really has to offer but those of us who come in from the outside really see it.

Me: What do you miss about Chicago?

Tracy: I still go there often. I miss the night life. Chicago is a fun city to enjoy yourself. But in Milwaukee you can really relax. And there’s good music here, too.

Me: What else do you like to do when you’re not banking?

Tracy: I like running, riding my bike at the lake. I like music a lot. Jazz, Blues. And I like to vacation. I’m not much of a sightseer. I like islands and resorts where I can lie on the beach and relax. I also have a 19-year-old daughter who’s a college student in Iowa. She’s staying with me this summer. She’s out with her friends tonight. And so I’m here.

Me: Do you like sports?

Tracy: I love sports. I’m a Bears fan, of course, but I bought season tickets to the Bucks. Great season. Ended too soon, but still a great season.

Me: Where did you grow up?

Tracy: I’m from Waterloo, Iowa.

Me: Do you still have family there?

Tracy: I was just in Iowa two weeks ago for Mother’s Day. Saw my mother and my grandmother and had some good home cooking.

Me: What kind of home cooking?

Tracy: Soul food. Duck, turkey. A lot of greens. Dressing.

Me: What’s one thing your mom or grandmother taught you that you’ve carried through life?

Tracy: Be respectful to your elders.

Me: What is one of your life mantras?

Tracy: Get out and have fun. You only live once. You might as well enjoy it.

Nights Like This

You have reached your bewitching hour.  While most people will unwind inside the cushioned margins of prime time, you won’t shrug away the day until it’s ready to expire. You are not governed by office hours or bedtimes. You will review and research and design and sort and package and analyze and schmooze until your limbs and attention vehemently protest.  When you can no longer deny your hunger, fatigue, neck cramps or that blister on your left heel, then you will stop.

You will stop long after your neighbor has put away the gardening tools and your kids’ soccer coach has read a chapter of the newest best seller. Long after the dog has been walked one last time, your ambition will watch the hour hand gracefully sweep across the meridian of a new day.

It is typically this late hour that helps grind your gears to a slow coast. It’s true what your relatives say about you. That you never truly stop.  That slowing down is enough for you.  You can still catch your breath at a crawling 100 mph.

Your work day has ended, but you can’t surrender easily to sleep. You make your way to the bar, welcoming its foreign familiarity. You’re in another hotel. Another city. Another lush penthouse lounge with votive candles flickering all about. You have never stayed here before, but you like it, you say to the woman at the bar. You’re in town from Chicago. Business. Banking. She buys your first drink. Hands you a card. She’s a writer. Or a reporter. Something for the hotel. You thank her for the drink and hope she’s not going to talk your ear off. She smiles. You both watch the rain.

Her best friend always gets sleepy when it rains like this, she says.  She says she likes to look at the rain or watch a movies. You’re inspired in other ways by the rain, but you don’t say so. You save that humor for people who know your edges. You don’t know this woman. In fact, you’re not sure why she’s talking to you.  She’s clearly sizing you up for something. You pick up her card and read it. Narrator.

You ask her why a hotel would have an arts residency program. She asks you how often you travel.  She tells you she’s been writing since she was a kid.  You tell her you never planned on banking, just knew you would be in business. You ask her what other things she writes. She asks what makes you good at your job.

You tell her that you’re good in front of clients.  You tell her that you work your ass off.  You tell her that you’re persistent and patient and you’re always prepared.  You tell her about taking clients to dinner. Fishing. To ball games. You tell her how the rookies only see the glamour of it all. You tell her that you’d rather give the box seats away sometimes.  You tell her that you’re not socializing; you’re working.  Always working.

You tell her that some deals take years to close.  She asks the common mistake that rookies might make.  You tell her they don’t know when to walk away. She asks what made you join this new company.  You tell her about the better offer.  She asks about life balance. You can hear the air quotes in her voice. You say that no one really has balance, we’re all making the best with what we’ve got. She tells you about taking her laptop to the beach. You say working and vacation don’t have to be mutually exclusive terms.  It’s your life and your time, you say. She agrees, but says her body started to disagree and she had to pay better attention to that life balance thing.  Air quotes again.  You nod and sip your drink. You silently toast your strong body.

She asks if you plan to repair sailboats or invest in a winery or open a little bed and breakfast one day.  You tell her how you want your investment properties to cover the mortgage on a second home one day.  You don’t tell her how close “one day” is.  She doesn’t ask.

Instead, she asks about Chicago. You tell her it’s home. You say you don’t mind the snow. She calls the city her favorite suburb. You buy the next round. Gin and tonic. Whiskey neat. You hadn’t expected to talk with her this long. She smiles again and is quiet. You feel the weight of the day begin to press into your shoulders.  You’re talking about barbecue.  The joint on the west side with the great sauce until the new owners took over.  Shameful, you say.

The drinks and the rain and the late hour have begun to converge into their nightly spell. You catch a yawn with your closed fist. You see her eyes slip out of focus for a second as she listens to you. Sleep has finally come to greet you both.

You order one more. She signs her check and wishes you luck on some throw away comment you’ve already forgotten. You tell her to be careful driving home in the rain. You watch her leave. You turn back to your drink and the tumult outside the window. You imagine this would be a gorgeous view on a clear night. You imagine what tomorrow will bring.

Honor

The sort of gentleman who would be described as “distinguished,” John Harris is 67 years old, though I told him he doesn’t look a day over 61. Straight-backed, and impeccably dressed in a tailored suit for the wedding he’s here to attend, John drapes both his hands over the top of a cane, the first few fingers intertwined, gold rings alight underneath the lobby chandeliers.

“Is it always this busy?” John asks as he sits in the chair opposite me at one of the lobby tables where I’m observing all the action of a Saturday afternoon in summer. We talk while he waits for a shuttle to the offsite reception for his wife’s niece, who’s getting married today. Himself married for 36 years—celebrated in May—John points out his wife. Seated on the couch among a large group of finely dressed people of differing ages, she certainly stands out: her blonde hair swept up, her glasses frame her face beautifully, while a sparkling necklace circles her throat. She has the proper carriage of a fine lady, and exudes warmth underneath her beauty. The secret to a long marriage, according to John? Consideration, care, patience and always staying in communication.

Home for John and his wife, is Chicago. Both are recently retired: she from several decades as a doctor in the Chicago Public Schools, he from life as a restaurateur, running lounges that featured live music—both contemporary ‘Top 40’ acts and classic jazz. His finest establishment, City Life, still operates as he set it up, even though it’s under new management, and offers three jazz shows a week. When I tell him I’m a fan of classic jazz and blues, he tells me I need to come listen to “June Yvonne” sing Billie Holiday.

John is quiet-spoken, but with a definite twinkle in the eye contact he levels at you and an understated intensity to his conversation, though laced with nothing but sincerity. It’s not a surprise, then, to learn that he was a Marine, serving for 12 years and doing two tours in Vietnam. The noise of the crowded lobby evaporates into a mere background murmur as we talk about his time served. His comrades are still his friends, though only three of his ten closest are still alive: “When you go through what we did, you forge bonds for life.”

Impassioned, his eyes a little watery, we talk about how different things are now for returning veterans of wars and other armed conflicts, compared to Vietnam. There’s a new generation, it seems to both of us, who can oppose a conflict—sometimes vehemently—but who maintain great respect for those who serve. Mostly I listen as he talks about this concept and what a welcome change it is to what he went through; he particularly feels it’s important to keep that human connection to one another, especially as war becomes increasingly mechanized and anonymous. Despite our differences, we can all find common ground within our humanity; perhaps if we focus on that, we can only become more considerate of, and care for, one another.

Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by a younger guy, jacket slung over his shoulder and carrying a baby, who approaches jocularly, calling out, “John! Time to go! Quit flirting!”

John stands, balancing on his cane, introduces me to his wife and, before he goes, shakes my hand. It’s a double handed shake—my one enveloped in his two—the kind you get from a person you feel it is an honor to acquaint yourself with… and however brief an honor, an honor it was indeed.

We who have seen war, will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young.

(quote from ‘We Were Soldiers’)

Wedded Wisdom

Today’s network news ran a feature story about how Middle Americans have been losing faith in marriage. I had to laugh out loud as I thought of John and Kathy, treat an amazing couple who recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary at the Pfister. First of all, I think all wedding anniversaries are to be congratulated. Life is stressful enough, but to combine your energies with a partner and navigate tough financial terrain and cultural circumstances (in an age where another news story says we’ve increased our whining and complaining) can be as taxing as it is rewarding so, whenever I meet a couple with significant years of marriage under their belt, I pay close attention. There are lessons to be learned there.

I sat with the pair, who also surprised me by mentioning they’re from the Chicago suburbs. Before I could even finish “Why are you vacationing in Milwaukee…” Kathy said, “Yeah, our friends all think we’re nuts for coming up here instead of going to the city. This is so much better though. We keep bringing them up here too, to show them.”

I had to smile. Just two years ago I had the same argument with a friend who was excited to plan a family vacation in Chicago and I worked hard to convince her Milwaukee was the better choice. When I asked, “What’s so special about Chicago?” she replied knowingly, “Uh, the pizza, the Field Museum, Lake Michigan?” I said, “Yup, in Milwaukee we have pizza, Discovery World, Miller Park and the same lake…”

Kathy and John know this. But it’s not their savvy in weekend getaways that drew me to them. The chemistry from this couple who knows each other so well was magnetic. That’s why I sat near them. They were talking pleasantly when I came upon them and neither asked a thing about me when I approached, they simply motioned for me to sit down and join them. I learned of their work life travels (together, the relocated for John’s work eight times in his career), I learned of their retirement adventures (visiting friends across the country and watching their daughter successfully navigate a now 18-year marriage—clearly wedded longevity runs in the family) and I learned that you never get to know how the story ends.

See, Kathy and John, it was revealed to me late in our conversation, knew each other back in elementary school on Long Island, NY. She was in first grade, he in fourth. But they weren’t sweethearts or dated until after high school when they married. Now, 45 years later, they still talk with old classmates, remember the same school buildings and recognize names of families by whichever siblings were in their class. This couple has been all around the country, but little did they know, their marriage started in the same school on Long Island.

On this night, they were treating themselves to a drink at the Pfister to kick off their anniversary. John asked, “So what is a Narrator?” and as I told him, I asked him more questions about his work…which Kathy gladly answered. John threw his hands up in mock exasperation—a dance the pair has clearly perfected over their many years together. I leaned in and teased John, “Wow, she’s really the narrator, isn’t she?” He smiled, nodded and said “Well, that’s one word for it…”

This rhythm and banter was so natural between them, when they left, I thanked them for setting the example. I told Kathy, I like seeing it, I like seeing couples showing us how it’s done. She nodded, patted me on the knee and said “Oh, honey, you gotta kiss a lot of frogs, but it’s well worth it!”